By way of complete disclosure, I have not read a lot of YA (Young Adult) novels recently. I read mostly science fiction and non-fiction. If Kristen Randle's The Only Alien on the Planet is what YA books are generally like, I should definitely read from this genre more often.
I've enjoyed reading books by such s.f. literary luminaries as Asimov, Heinlein, Card, Le Guin, Greg Bear, and Clifford Simak. Despite its somewhat s.f.-sounding title, The Only Alien on the Planet is not science fiction, but it should appeal to science fiction fans, or anybody who enjoys powerful stories with believable, interesting characters. Of my favorite authors, Only Alien reminded me most of the science fiction by the incomparable Zenna Henderson. Most of her fiction was set in classrooms, told from the perspectives of students or teachers.
As with many Henderson stories, The Only Alien on the Planet begins with a student who exhibits very unusual characteristics. Ginny (Virginia), a senior in high school, has the misfortune of having parents who decide to be a bit adventurous by moving their family across country to a new state, new home and--for Ginny--a new school. Fortunately she finds some nice friends, including Caulder, the boy who lives next door. She also encounters Smitty, the character who is central to the novel and who becomes, in strange, unexpected ways, central to Ginny's new life.
In Smitty the author has created a fascinating mystery and a very compelling character. Smitty never talks, never shows any facial expressions at all. Ginny learns he has been like this for over ten years. Smitty is like a walking statue -- completely indecipherable and uncommunicative. Yet he's also startlingly intelligent -- probably the smartest student in school. He does not respond to oral questions, but he aces every written test he takes, writes compositions that read like college text books, and provides unerringly helpful help to Ginny with her math homework. (He wordlessly uses pen and paper to carefully show her steps.) Smitty is so obviously strange that he has been nicknamed "the Alien" by the kids in school. Of course, there's no way to know whether or not this appellation bothers him or not.
Caulder has been Smitty's neighbor and "friend" for years, although the term has a somewhat different meaning when applied to their mostly one-way relationship. Ginny finds herself recruited into Caulder's quest to discover why Smitty is like the way he is, and to possibly help him come out of his shell. The character of Smitty is the greatest strength of the book, the thing that makes this story really interesting and worthwhile. There are other "autistic savants" in fiction and film (although this isn't necessarily what Smitty is). But Smitty is so richly drawn and so carefully revealed through Ginny's observations and experiences with him, this he comes alive in a very special and endearing way.
It's been some time since I've cared about a novel's characters the way I cared about these. Their joys were strongly felt, and their pains were real and exquisite. Eventually the mysteries surrounding Smitty are solved, and many characters experience interesting but very believable types of growth. The surprises in this novel are too precious for me to give them away here, but I will say that although readers are very unlikely to guess the full story (I was completely surprised), nothing is thrown in just for sake of being a plot twist. The whole story is extremely organic and flows naturally, and by the end one wonders how it could have been any other way. Yet it is an engaging page-turner throughout.
This is a YA novel, and, not surprisingly, involves quite a bit of going to school, as well as some dates, doing homework, a dance, a party, etc. Such is the life of a high school senior, but Smitty's presence transforms all of these otherwise normal goings-on into backdrops for an always developing story. It really is interesting to see what happens when Caulder and Ginny take "the Alien" to a party or a movie.
The young people in this novel remind me very much of the young people I grew up with. They are not the nihilistic, sadistic, self-centered, hedonistic youth that infest so many books and television shows. I think most readers will be able to relate to Ginny and Caulder and other characters. The various activities of these flawed yet ethical young people, coupled with their observations of the world, give this novel a very Jane Austen feel it at times. As with many of Austen's novels, the main characters inhabit a mostly bright and livable world, but one with spots of exceeding darkness.
For parents or educators: The Only Alien on the Planet, published by Scholastic, is very appropriate for classroom use. It is suggested for grades 8 through 12. Many educators have already been using it in the classroom. Most parents and students would find nothing in the book objectionable. The young people are believable, yet very ethical and moral. There is no vulgar or profane language, graphic violence, racism, drug use or sex. Furthermore, the novel has won a stack of awards from educational associations, and is every bit as literary, as well as interesting, as an English teacher would hope in a YA novel. The book is rich in subtle but discussable symbolism and imagery. The plotting and characterization are well-crafted, and there some interesting Themes available for discussion (e.g., families, friends, disabilities, the connection between mental state and physical health).
This is a very non-political book which should please parents of most any background and ideology. The potentially wide appeal of the book arises not from any intention by the author to avoid giving offense. Randle has simply told a very honest, personable story about realistic characters and events, and hasn't set out to Send a Message or write a Statement Novel. Yet the book is highly ethical by nature of its admirable, realistic characters responding believably to difficult situations and problems. Most parents would be pleased to have their children read this book. I found it a little uplifting myself, if only because it let me envision that there are youth of intelligence and character who care about some of the right things (and can still have fun).
Clearly I enjoyed this novel. My biggest complaint may be more nitpicky than substantive. But I found the long absence of Ginny's parents at the beginning of the novel more convenient than believable. Upon arriving in the new town, Ginny's parents are gone most of the time, well into the late evening after their kids come home from school, working on fixing up an older home in the downtown area into a working graphic arts studio. So much of the plot happened before the parents announced they were finished that it seemed like this remodeling job went on for months. Okay, maybe the plot necessitated having Mom and Dad out of the way a bit. This is a Young Adult novel, and one can't have parents solving all the main characters' problems. But I could never quite grasp what type of economics would allow a couple months setting up a workplace that would likely have a very low profit margin. No case was made for this family having an abundance of extra funds, and if they did, why didn't they hire some people to help finish the remodeling more quickly? It's a minor complaint, and maybe I just misread the novel's time cues, but I feel I should include at least one criticism, lest I appear to be gushing.
The Only Alien on the Planet struck me as a special, as well as enjoyable, book. I want to read it with my kids when they're older. It's not perfect, but it's very good. Not only is this a very well-written book, it also presents very good role models that most people, whether "young adults" or simply young at heart, will be able to relate to and will enjoy meeting.